The Story of the Russell-Cotes' Art Collection
The Russell-Cotes Art Gallery and Museum was founded by Sir Merton (1835-1921) and Lady (1835-1920) Russell-Cotes on Bournemouth’s East Cliff at the turn of the twentieth century. Apart from Sudley Art Gallery in Liverpool, the Russell-Cotes is a rare survivor as the residence of a Victorian private collector, which was purpose-designed and perpetuated as a permanent art museum. The Art Journal acknowledged that “Mr Russell-Cotes has devoted considerable time to the bringing together of probably the most notable collection of modern works of Art in the extreme south of England.” (1895, Art Journal, London: J.S Virtue & Co. Ltd., 83)
Originally from Tettenhall in Staffordshire, Merton Cotes came from a family of prosperous ironmasters, manufacturers and landowners. Later, he hyphenated his middle and last names to signify a claimed family link with Lord Russell, the Duke of Bedford. Following his father’s death in 1842, Merton moved to Glasgow with his mother and elder sister and her husband. Here he struck up a friendship with John King Clark, from the cotton manufacturing family, who introduced him to Glasgow’s literary and artistic circles. It is from these youthful days that we can trace the interest in art and collecting paintings that was to become a lifelong passion for Merton. Clark also introduced him to his only daughter, Annie Nelson Clark, who was the same age.
Poor health forced Merton to abandon his original desire to pursue to a medical career, and he was advised to go abroad. For a while he managed an English School in Buenos Aires, but then returned to Scotland. In 1860 he married Annie Clark and then moved with her to Dublin, where he worked for the Scottish Amicable Society as their representative for Ireland for a period of 16 years. Merton’s health, however, continued to suffer, and it was suggested that a warmer climate near the sea might improve his condition. Eventually the couple moved to Bournemouth in 1876 with their three children, and at last Merton’s health began to improve. They bought the Bath Hotel on the East Cliff on Christmas Day 1876. They later extended and extensively refurbished the hotel and re-opened it as the Royal Bath Hotel in 1880.
From 1884, partly prompted by continuing concerns for Merton’s health, the couple travelled extensively. They visited Australasia, America, India, the Near East, Egypt, the Pacific Islands and Japan, collecting considerable quantities of artwork and souvenirs over the years. The resulting collections were displayed throughout the public and private rooms of the hotel, which gained a reputation for being an art gallery and museum in its own right. Many famous and distinguished guests stayed at the hotel including the Prince of Wales (later Edward VII); Oscar Wilde; the actor Sir Henry Irving; the artist, Sir Hubert Von Herkomer; and Sir Benjamin Disraeli. The Black and White magazine of October 1891 described the corridor walls:
“hung with specimens of the choicest works of art of such artists as Turner...Corot, Tadema, Sidney Cooper, Edwin Long, Jon Linnell, Landseer, David Murray, W.L. Wyllie, Kerkomer, Fildes, Etty...and a host of others”...
Eventually the collections outgrew the hotel and in 1897, the couple commissioned the unique and eccentric East Cliff Hall. The Hall was intended as a home, but particularly as a showcase for their sizeable collections of Victorian art and artefacts amassed on their world travels. Merton wrote, “I made up my mind to construct it architecturally to combine the Renaissance with Italian and old Scottish baronial styles” . The resulting house (now a Grade II* Listed Building) reflects Moorish, Japanese and French decorative styles alongside contemporary Victorian design. The interiors provide a context for their extensive collections of artefacts, furnishings, sculpture and paintings. Completed in 1901, at the end of Queen Victoria’s reign, East Cliff Hall was one of the last Victorian villas to be built in the town.
View the timeline of the Russell-Cotes Art Gallery & Museum.
Text adapted from The Story of the Russell-Cotes Art Collection by Gwen Yarker © Gwen Yarker/Russell-Cotes Art Gallery & Museum, 2008.
Above: Annie & Merton Russell-Cotes on their wedding day, 1860